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Diogenes Revenge: Cynicism, Semiotics, and the Evaporating Standard

September 24, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Diogenes was called Kynos — Greek for dog — for his lifestyle and contrariness. It was from this word for dog that we get the word Cynic.

Diogenes is also said to have worked minting coins with his father until he was 60, but was then exiled for debasing the coinage. – source

In comparing the semiotics of CS Pierce and Jean Baudrillard, two related themes emerge concerning the nature of signs. Pierce famously used trichotomy arrangements to describe the relations, while Baudrillard talked about four stages of simulation, each more removed from authenticity. In Pierce’s formulation, Index, Icon, and Symbol work as separate strategies for encoding meaning. An index is a direct consequence or indication of some reality. An icon is a likeness of some reality. A symbol is a code which has its meaning assigned intentionally.

Baudrillard saw sign as a succession of adulterations – first in which an original reality is copied, then when the copy masks the original in some way, third, as a denatured copy in which the debasement has been masked, and fourth as a pure simulacra; a copy with no original, composed only of signs reflecting each other.

Whether we use three categories or four stages, or some other number of partitions along a continuum, an overall pattern can be arranged which suggests a logarithmic evaporation, an evolution from the authentic and local to the generic and universal. Korzybski’s map and territory distinction fits in here too, as human efforts to automate nature result in maps, maps of maps, and maps of all possible mapping.

The history of human timekeeping reveals the earthy roots of time as a social construct based on physical norms. Timekeeping was, from the beginning linked with government and control of resources.

According to Callisthenes, the Persians were using water clocks in 328 BC to ensure a just and exact distribution of water from qanats to their shareholders for agricultural irrigation. The use of water clocks in Iran, especially in Zeebad, dates back to 500BC. Later they were also used to determine the exact holy days of pre-Islamic religions, such as the Nowruz, Chelah, or Yalda- – the shortest, longest, and equal-length days and nights of the years. The water clocks used in Iran were one of the most practical ancient tools for timing the yearly calendar.  source

Anything which burns or flows at a steady rate can be used as a clock. Oil lamps, candles, can incense have been used as clocks, as well as the more familiar sand hourglass, shadow clocks, and clepsydrae (water clocks). During the day, a simple stick in the ground can provide an index of the sun’s position. These kinds of clocks, in which the nature of physics is accessed directly would correspond to Baudrillard’s first level of simulation – they are faithful copies of the sun’s movement, or of the depletion of some material condition.

Staying within this same agricultural era of civilization, we can understand the birth of currency in the same way. Trading of everyday commodities could be indexed with concentrated physical commodities like livestock, and also other objects like shells which had intrinsic value for being attractive and uncommon, as well as secondary value for being durable and portable objects to trade. In the same way that coins came to replace shells, mechanical clocks and watches came to replace physical index clocks. The notions of time and money, while different in that time refers to a commodity beyond the scope of human control and money referring specifically to human control, both serve as regulatory standards for civilization, as well as equivalents for each other in many instances (‘man hours’, productivity).

In the next phase of simulation, coins combined the intrinsic and secondary values of things like shells with a mint mark to ensure transactional viability on the token. The icon of money, as Diogenes discovered, can be extended much further than the index, as anything that bears the official seal will be taken as money, regardless of the actual metal content of the coin. The idea of bank notes was as a promise to pay the bearer a sum of coins. In the world of time measurement, the production of clocks, clocktowers, and watches spread the clock face icon around the world, each one synchronized to a local, and eventually a coordinated universal time. Industrial workers were divided into shifts, with each crew punching a timeclock to verify their hours at work and breaks. While the nature of time makes counterfeiting a different kind of prospect, the practice of having others clock out for you or having a cab driver take the long way around to run the meter longer are ways that the iconic nature of the mechanical clock can be exploited. Being one step removed from the physical reality, iconic technologies provide an early opportunity for ‘hacking’.

physical territory > index local map > icon symbol > universal map
water clock, sand clock sundial/clock face digital timecode
trade > shells coins > check > paper plastic > digital > virtual
production > organization bonds > stock futures > derivatives
real estate mortgage, rent speculation > derivatives
genuine aesthetic imitation synthetic artificial emulation
non-verbal communication language data

The last three decades have been marked by the rise of the digital economy. Paper money and coins have largely been replaced by plastic cards connected to electronic accounts, which have in turn entered the final stage of simulacra – a pure digital encoding. The promissory note iconography and the physical indexicality of wealth have been stripped away, leaving behind a residue of immediate abstraction. The transaction is not a promise, it is instantaneous. It is not wealth, it is only a license to obtain wealth from the coordinated universal system.

Time has entered it’s symbolic phase as well. The first exposure to computers that consumers had in the 1970s was in the form of digital watches and calculators. Time and money. First LED, and then LCD displays became available, both in expensive and inexpensive versions. For a whole generation of kids, their first electronic devices were digital calculators and watches. There had been digital clocks before, based on turning wheels or flipping tiles, but the difference here was that the electronic numbers did not look like regular numbers. Nobody had ever seen numbers rendered as these kind of generic combinatorial figures before. Every kid quickly learned how to spell out words by turning the numbers upside down (you couldn’t make much.. 710 77345 spells ShELL OIL)…sort of like emoticons.

Beneath the surface however, something had changed. The digital readout was not even real numbers, they were icons of numbers, and icons which exposed the mechanics of their iconography. Each number was only a combinatorial pattern of binary segments – a specific fraction of the full pattern. You could even see the faint outlines of the complete pattern of 8’s if you looked closely, both in LED and LCD. The semiotic process had moved one step closer to the technological and away from the consumer. Making sense of these patterns as numbers was now part of your job, and the language of Arabic numerals became data to be processed.

Since that time, the digital revolution has shaped the making and breaking of world markets. Each financial bubble spread out, Diogenes style, through the banking and finance industry behind a tide of abstraction. Ultra-fast trading which leverages meaningless shifts in transaction patterns has become the new standard, replacing traditional market analysis. From leveraged buyouts in the 1980s to junk bonds, tech IPOs, Credit Default Swaps, and the rest, the world economy is no longer an index or icon of wealth, it is a symbol which refers only to itself.

The advent of 3D printing marks the opposite trend. Where conventional computer printing to allow consumers to generate their own 2D icons from machines running on symbols, the new wave of micro-fabrication technology extend that beyond the icon and the index level. Parts, devices, food, even living tissue can be extruded from symbol directly into material reality. Perhaps this is a fifth level of simulation – the copy with no original which replaces the need for the original…a trophy in Diogenes’ honor.

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